currently living in Kleinwalsertal, Austria.
It's an island that seems to have it all. Snow-capped mountains dotted with alpine tarns, tucked-away valleys that embrace fjords and lakes. Incredible ancient rainforests with unique biodiversity. A coastline with weathered rock and beaches where orcas rub in summer. The island wildlife includes dense populations of bear and cougar, Roosevelt elk, indigenous mammals and a rich birdlife. It's also a paradise for active travelers: you could go skiing in the morning and surfing in the afternoon, the next day go kayaking, hiking, wildlife watching or even caving.
However, we'll be honest with the daunting problem in this perfect picture. When planning our trip around Vancouver Island, we got the impression that much of the land is still covered with old-growth rainforest, as indeed it used to be. Tragically, there are only relatively small areas of old-growth rainforest preserved from industrial logging. Far too often, only a few lines of trees are left where people can see them, and behind those visible lines everything is ruthlessly levelled to the ground (see more below).
There are still amazing old-growth rainforests left intact. We are grateful to have experienced many such forests during this trip, and sincerely hope that they will be preserved - not only for visitors, but for Earth and its ability to support such diversity of life. These ancient trees create ecosystems rarely found today, but they also represent a part of ourselves almost forgotten in modern life. The atmosphere beneath the heavy canopies evokes that inexplicable, but heartfelt, spiritual longing within.
We arrived with a ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on the east coast. Since the island is enormous, and the bus service to remote places generally non-existent, we decided to go with a rental car. Southbound and eager for nature, we skipped Victoria and headed directly to the southern-most tip of Vancouver Island.
Here, in East Sooke Regional Park on the first day of travel, we had bear cubs leaping over the road in front of us (safely making it to the other side!) and saw a fresh note on a cougar kill where we intended to hike the next day. No close calls, but we were a little on the edge during the outdoor dinner at dusk.
Sooke Park offers pleasant trails along the coastline, passing diverse forest (for example we recognized strawberry trees, Arbutus), and the paths are also suitable for trail running. With caution, of course, for the abundant wildlife. Also note that the signs lack distance markers and that some of the trails are quite long.
Our road trip continued along the south coast, stopping in the small provincial parks and trailheads of the Juan de Fuca trail, including for example China Beach, Sombrio Beach, Botanical Beach and the beautiful Mystic Beach, reached by hiking through coastal rainforest. If you're lucky, you might spot whales, seals or sea lions, bald eagles and other wildlife.
We stayed in Port Renfrew for the night, hoping to find a local tour to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park the following day. Unfortunately, the local tours once offered are no longer available. The long distance of driving on sketchy roads makes it difficult to make tours economic. Fully understandable, but sad, as eco-friendly tourism is a well proven way to reduce the impact of industrial clear-cutting within and adjacent to the protected land. Carmanah is one of the greatest remaining rainforests and needs immediate protection.
Moving on from Port Renfrew, we headed east and then north on the road to Cowichan Lake, a highly developed tourist magnet advertising hiking and many other recreational activities. We didn't want to linger, as the area is too hard hit by the logging industry and development. With a few stops along the way, we instead carried onto Tofino on the west coast.
Tofino is a beach dense peninsula stretching out to the Pacific Ocean. It is world-famous for surfing, which has shaped its culture across nationality as many travel long distances to enjoy the natural playgrounds. Tofino is also a fine place for kayaking and for taking boat or floating plane tours to the nearby islands, which offer pristine hiking and even the chance to bathe in a hot spring.
We opted to try out the famous surfing. With some experience from the cold waters of south England, we decided to go alone, and while a lot of effort was spent to remember the tricks of the game, the playfulness is intrinsically rewarding and any pain soon forgotten.
Just south of Tofino is the Pacific Rim Reserve, protecting marine areas, wetlands and temperate rainforests. The canopies are dominated by Western hemlock, Sitka spruce and Western red-cedar, while black bears, Vancouver Island cougar, Roosevelt elk, a few Vancouver Island wolves and numerous other species live in the forests. The marine life is equally bountiful. There are a number of easy and pleasant hikes to explore in the area as well as interesting exhibitions on local indigenous history and culture.
Strathcona Provincial Park was to be the last of our explorations on the island, and the hopes were high. The park, located at the center of Vancouver Island includes more than 250,00 hectares of mountains, valleys and lakes - a relatively preserved wilderness with an interesting trail system and numerous mountain hikes and climbs.
However, as we made our way through the Forbidden plateau area of the park, already at the low altitude lakes we found ourselves hiking through snow. It's not easy to predict - at this time another year, one might already have had summer conditions, but the thick snowpack from this winter would not easily give way. It is what it is, and so we settled for a shortened lake hike... That is, not including every lake in the area as we had initially planned! ;-)
The Buttle Lake area of Strathcona is named after fjord-like Buttle Lake, which stretches north to south surrounded by mountains. We can recommend the Ralph River Campground, where one sleeps in peace under huge old Douglas fir trees. The site was so picturesque and tranquil (at least pre-season) that we decided to stay for an additional night.
Our favorite hike in this area was the one least expected. Price Creek Trail is a tucked-away and forgotten exploration journey through wild rainforest. The path has no end goal; when proceeding is too difficult, it simply stops. At the trailhead, a warning sign notes that the trail is not maintained, that it contains natural hazards and that hikers are encouraged to move on to the Bedwell Lake trail instead. Well, that didn't put us off - quite the contrary.
The path starts out deceptively normal along overgrown vehicle tracks. But the further you get, the more difficult the trail becomes. It is fascinating to see how quickly the rainforest reclaims its wildness. Fallen trees, from young and tender to immense old-growth, litter the trail and creates a fantastic, though possibly dangerous obstacle course. Climbing and balancing on logs and branches, the trail is scrambled and crawled more than it is hiked. We consider ourselves fast, but it took all of this long summer day to complete the 4 kilometers into the wilderness and same back - and we never strayed far from the remaining orange markers. Along the way there's frequent fresh bear scat and the occasional sound of cracking branches - not from us. Remembering that this is what the island used to be like before settlement, it struck our hearts. What a fortunate birthday gift for me! To explore the wild with awe and playfulness, just as we were born to do.
Rainforest desecration in BC
Let's be honest: Vancouver Island would be a place of immeasurable beauty, were it not for the brutal plundering of its once so rich ancient temperate rainforests. Lost with the wilderness and its habitats is also the culture and heritage of indigenous peoples, to whom the exploitation has inflicted immense pain. Though we are only tourists to the country and not directly affected, it was heart-breaking to learn of the murky hidden side to British Columbia.
It sounds like the dark shadow of the past. Since colonization in the 19th century, Aboriginals have faced institutionalized oppression, shaming and abuse. They have been displaced from their land, forced into the fringes of settler society while the natural resources were claimed and exploited by international corporations supported by corrupt government. Since the past half century, the industrial logging has exploded, following the most economic, least sustainable methods of forestry imaginable, and there is much documentation of the complete destruction left in their wake. Thousand year-old groves of rainforest with unique biodiversity have been levelled to the ground. Important watersheds and salmon rivers are destroyed. Totem trees taken down in spite of their cultural importance to the indigenous peoples, and ancient ritual sites wrecked to spite protestors. Barren hills are left exposed to erosion and mudslides, further degrading the land, and so on. The photographic documentation is as heart-breaking as documentation from sites of fracking devastation (another terrible side of Canada that needs immediate addressing).
But worse still, the days of destruction are not over. With modern tools it is easier than ever to see the damage done, and the bottomless greed, now exposed to the public, doesn't relent. Even the precious stands of old-growth rainforests left standing today are nibbled, piece by piece, in what seems like the last push to grab what remains in spite of protesting communities. Much of this is supported by the government, by handing out rights for logging the ancient forests, not properly regulating the methods of forestry, and even allowing its own agency to clear-cut important areas. With the black market for timber blossoming, poaching is becoming an issue as well.
"The current rate of old-growth logging on Vancouver Island alone is more than three square metres per second, equivalent to the area of nearly two soccer fields per hour." - Sierra Club BC
The indigenous peoples suffer no less, and still have to fight continuously to have their voices heard. Canada was one of 4 countries that voted against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (with 144 states voting for) - just a pointer to the (severe lack of) importance placed on indigenous rights by BC government.
The people of British Columbia now know what is going on, and are not withholding their protests. But forcing the government to follow the will of the people - to stop the madness and shift to sustainable forestry and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples - has turned out to be a painfully slow process. Land rights keep being sold for exploitation every year, and ongoing destruction isn't being stopped. According to research from Sierra Club BC, 35 soccer plans of these rainforests are cut down on Vancouver Island every day.
Apart from the fragmentation of surviving forests, leading to degradation of entire ecosystems, there are several negative side effects directly affecting the locals. For example, water supplies are put at risk from the ruthless methods, an issue that has caused major concern for localities as they have found their most important watersheds destroyed. Another trend now is for the logging industry to turn the devastated land into real estate, causing the influx of yet more infrastructure and people than the hurting land can sustainably support.
"The BC government continues to pursue an agenda of privatizing and commercializing our publically owned provincial parks. It has lost sight of what British Columbians think: the single most important aspect of our protected areas system is to set aside wilderness areas for the sole purpose of preserving natural areas." - Wilderness Committee
Protect the ancient ecosystems
Thankfully, there are amazing forests still intact on Vancouver Island and the BC west coast, and they are worth protecting with all we have. Among the many opponents of rainforest logging, the Wilderness Committee and Sierra Club BC continue to work hard to get people engaged and enforce the government to abandon colonializm and protect the wilderness. Both organizations are working on the issues continuously alongside local communities, and are grateful for volunteers. If you want to get engaged, start through them and surf on the power of people working together for our common future.
Snow-capped mountains, tucked-away valleys embracing fjords and lakes, ancient rainforests with immense old trees, weathered coastline and an abundant wildlife. Vancouver Island could be a place of immeasurable beauty, were it not for the senseless clear-cutting of its bountiful rainforests. f you have the means, please help stop the madness.